I don’t often cook red meat at home, but when someone eventually asks for a steak, I oblige. This week, the request for steak au poche, a French bistro-style well-marbled strip steak — or tenderloin if you’re feeling fancy — encrusted with freshly-cracked black peppercorns sent me back to my decade in France where every corner bistro serves some version of steak frites. It’s a quick one-pan meal and just takes a few crucial steps to make at home. Try to buy local, sustainably-harvested meat, if possible. Alaska is rich with options including locally-raised, grass-fed and hormone-free cattle/beef.
I called a classically trained French chef friend of mine in LA for some tips. Christophe insisted that the steak “must not be cold; let it sit out of the fridge at least 30 minutes and up to one hour, depending on how warm your kitchen is.” Secondly, he said that after crushing the peppercorns you can toss in a fine-mesh sieve and shake out any of the powdery dust from crushing, which prevents the peppercorns from adhering properly to the steak. Encrusting one side only seems to work better, so that the non-encrusted side can finish cooking without burning the pepper too much and leaving a bitter taste. Traditionally, the steak is flambéed but many find this a bit terrifying, so you can easily just let the alcohol cook off before adding in cream and stock. Sometimes, if I’m making this for both carnivores and pescatarians, I’ll make extra sauce and serve with seared scallops or fish or over steamed rice or pasta. Serve steak with hot homemade fries, pasta, a bright green salad, or simply stir in some hardy greens, like frisée, escarole, or spinach or kale into the sauce just before serving. Enjoy your meal. — Kim Sunee
1 16-ounce boneless well-marbled steak, such as New York strip or ribeye, about 1½ inches thick
Fine or kosher salt
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns or combo black and white peppercorns
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, such as grapeseed or avocado
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 to 3 tablespoons (1 small) minced shallot
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce (optional)
2 tablespoons cognac (or bourbon or red wine)
½ cup low-sodium beef stock (or chicken stock)
½ cup heavy cream or crème fraiche
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
• Remove steak from fridge at least 30 minutes to one hour before cooking. If kitchen is hot, 30 minutes should be fine. Lightly sprinkle top and bottom of steak with salt; set aside on a plate lined with paper towels. Crack peppercorns, using a mortar and pestle, or with a rolling pin or the bottom of a heavy skillet — wrap peppercorns in a towel so they don’t roll away while crushing. They should be coarse and not finely ground. Place peppercorns in a fine-mesh sieve and shake sieve to remove all the powdery dust. Spread cracked peppercorns on a shallow plate and firmly press one side of steak into the peppercorns to form an even crust. Set steak aside, peppercorn-side up; reserve any remaining peppercorns to add to the sauce later.
• Prep your ingredients: Gather a one-tablespoon measuring spoon, vegetable oil, and butter. Mince shallot and place in a small bowl with soy sauce, if using; soy sauce lends an extra layer of umami to the sauce but is not crucial. Have your cognac, cream, beef stock and Dijon ready.
• Place a large cast-iron or stainless steel skillet over medium-high heat; add oil. Using the heel of your hand, firmly press peppercorns one more time into the steak. When pan is hot but not smoking, add the steak, peppercorn side down and let cook about three minutes until peppercorns are well toasted; adjust heat if starting to cook too quickly or burn. Carefully turn steaks, trying not to shake off peppercorn crust. Add butter and once butter melts, baste the steaks using a spoon to pour butter and any rogue peppercorns over steak. Let cook another 2 to 3 minutes — time will vary depending on thickness of steaks — and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 125 degrees, for medium-rare. Remove steak to a warm platter while finishing the sauce.
• Remove with a spoon all but one tablespoon of fat from pan but keep the crusty bits. Add shallot, soy sauce, if using, and any reserved peppercorns. Carefully add brandy, pouring close to the pan and being careful of any flare-ups. Either carefully light with a match and flambé, reducing heat and shaking pan gold simply allow alcohol to cook off, one minute or so. Add stock and scrape any bits from bottom of pan. Whisk in cream and simmer on low a few minutes and until sauce is thick and coats back of spoon. Whisk-in-mustard. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more cream or mustard. Slice steaks and pour sauce over steaks and serve at once.
Note: If serving with spinach or frisee, add to the pan sauce just before serving.